William Ryan’s debut historical thriller, The Holy Thief (2010), put him on the literary map but fast. The tale of a dogged, obdurately individualistic cop—Capt. Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division—who’s assigned to probe the torture slayings of a nun and a crook in Stalinist-era Russia, it picked up a nomination for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Award and was shortlisted for both a Barry Award and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award.
Read the last Rap Sheet on Richard Dougherty’s ‘The Commissioner.’
After such a reception, a sequel seemed inevitable. And sure enough, Irish attorney-turned-author Ryan is now out with his second Korolev yarn, The Darkening Field. It sends the CID sleuth off to the Black Sea port city of Odessa in 1937, where he’s teamed with a smart, cheeky young assistant to investigate the dubious suicide of a woman—linked to a high-ranking official in the Communist Party—who was working on a politically charged motion picture.
Below, Ryan talks about his enthrallment with Russia’s Soviet past and the long-vanished film, Bezhin Meadow, on which the fictional movie at the heart of his new book is based.
What got you interested in the Soviet Union’s history under Premier Joseph Stalin?
[Journalist-author] Isaac Babel wrote some superb short stories set in the Russian Civil War [1917–1923], which I loved when I first came across them. Unfortunately, there weren’t very many of them—which, given he was active for nearly 20 years before his death in Stalin’s purges, was a bit surprising.
At the time the Soviet Union was still very much intact and there wasn’t much accurate information available about that period in its history, but I did manage to discover that Babel had been executed by Stalin not long after he’d returned from a trip to Paris. I thought it might make quite a good drama—that decision he’d made to go back to his death when he could easily have stayed abroad, and I began to research the idea.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, much more detail about Stalin’s purges became available and I just kept discovering more and more about the extraordinary nature of the repression and the complete control of the population. Even though the Babel project never came to anything, the idea for the Korolev novels came about somewhere along the line, and I began to work on The Holy Thief.
You’ve said that you wouldn’t have found it easy to live in Korolev’s USSR of the 1930s. What might’ve been your biggest challenges?
I think life in 1930s Moscow veered between boredom and terror. Every cultural and social occasion had to toe the Party line, which probably took a lot of the joy out of things and, at the same time, there was the constant risk of denouncement to the authorities.
Millions of people were purged in the 1930s for perceived opposition to the State, so I think survival would have been my first priority—and not just for my own sake, as my arrest would probably implicate friends and family as well. After that, the simple mechanics of obtaining food and shelter were incredibly difficult for ordinary people. Families often ended up sharing rooms with strangers and something like 20 million people died of starvation during the push to collectivization.
If I was foolish enough to decide to try and work as a writer, I’d probably have been even more at risk—censorship was all-pervasive by then and if you were perceived as being disloyal the consequences could be pretty severe. Writers like Babel and [Osip] Mandelstam were arrested and died in the Gulag system, while others like [Mikhaíl] Bulgakov and [Boris] Pasternak were persecuted. All in all, I think I’d rather have been living almost anywhere else and if, like Babel, I’d been fortunate enough to be allowed to go to Paris in 1936, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to stay there.
Was it those conditions that convinced you to set your fiction in Stalinist Russia?
I think so, and writing about a detective—who is expected to uncover truth and bring about justice—is an interesting way to explore a society where truth and justice are what the State determines them to be.
The interesting thing about Korolev is that he’s aware of everything that’s going on around him, but he does his level best to ignore it. He’s publicly a loyal servant of the State, but privately he has his own beliefs and reservations about the way things are done. I think a lot of people were like that, in that they had split personalities. I think it was difficult to survive—physically or mentally—otherwise.
What was your inspiration for The Darkening Field?
Babel worked on a film called Bezhin Meadow, which was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. The film was very loosely adapted from a Turgenev short story. All films, indeed all art of any kind, produced in the Soviet Union at the time had to have the correct political message.
Bezhin Meadow was also based on the real story of Pavlik Morozov, a peasant boy who was murdered by his own family after he betrayed them to the State for withholding food destined for the collective farm system. As a result, Morozov was held up by Soviet propaganda as a shining example to children—the message being that their first loyalty was to the State rather than their parents or loved ones.
Whatever Eisenstein and Babel did with the story we’ll never know for sure, because the film was suppressed and the only copy was destroyed by a German bomb in 1942. Eisenstein had to publish an abject self-criticism in Pravda and the film’s failure almost certainly didn’t help Babel when he was arrested a couple of years later. Anyway, that was the starting point of the story, and the director in The Darkening Field is based on Eisenstein.
The film was shot in the Ukraine, which suffered horrific famine during the collectivization drive [of the early ’30s]—many millions were starved at the same time as food was being exported—and when a young girl is found dead on the fictional film set, Korolev ends up investigating a murder that has much more to it than originally is apparent.
Do you travel to Russia often to scout out locations for your stories?
I’m just back from Moscow, where I spent a week tramping the streets looking at the places that feature in the next book. It’s always a bit of a challenge to re-create what a particular location might have looked like in the ’30s, and I use contemporary photographs to help with that, but even so it’s always best to see it in person.
So, can you tell us something about the plot of that third Korolev novel?
It takes place in Moscow and revolves around the murders of some scientists who have been undertaking extremely secret research for State Security. Korolev has to overcome his personal distaste at the research methods used by the dead men to uncover who is behind the murders, knowing at the same time that the information he’s uncovering is also making him a security breach that may have to be remedied on a permanent basis. And life is made all the more complicated when Korolev’s son, Yuri, comes to visit at the same time.